I have a real soft spot for the field of study called “Cybernetics”. I was reminded of this today by a popular Reddit thread linking a well-intentioned, but poorly executed, film called “The Choice is Ours“. I didn’t watch it all, and am instead using this an opportunity to link one of my favourite documentaries: “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace – Episode 2 – The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts“, written and directed by Adam Curtis. There are many many many fascinating things to learn from the Curtis documentary, and I would encourage absolutely everyone to watch it, but I’d like to add a few of my own thoughts about Cybernetics as well.
In all my years at university I never once saw a course in Cybernetics offered. It wasn’t until I started trying to model human eye movements that I was able to develop a really deep appreciation for this field. Some of the most important papers I read in graduate school were published in a relatively obscure journal called “Biological Cybernetics“. It was here for instance, that the enigmatic Shun-ichi Amari published his seminal paper that later became a cornerstone of the Dynamic Field Theory based modeling that is I do. Amari lit up my imagination with all kinds of curiously titled, yet often totally impenetrable, papers. One day I will read and try to understand The Information Geometry of Turbo Codes, but for now I will simply say that it is satisfying that some of my academic work has managed to intersect with another interest I’ve long had in self-organizing workplaces.
Cybernetics is very concerned with the concept of “feedback”. This is a topic serendipitously on my mind, as I’m editing some papers I wrote for my comprehensives, and am just at a section discussing the differences between “unsupervised” and “supervised” learning. All that really needs to be said about that, is that feedback can really change how we learn about things, for the better or worse, and some things cannot be learned without it.
For many years my bathroom has been haunted by an old copy of Stafford Beer’s “The Brain of the Firm“. I never did finish this book, which details the “Viable system model” developed to manage the economic input and outputs for the tragically short-lived Allende government in Chile. This is work that is all but forgotten in the halls of academia, yet these are ideas whose time may have finally come, manifest as cryptocurrencies like IOTA. I have a similar affinity for the eccentric, but inspiring, Buckminster Fuller, to whom to we owe the popularity of geodesic domes. I do hope that Cybernetics rises again in academia.